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Before Bo Pelini and Tom Osborne cut the ribbon for a Nebraska Football Lettermen’s Wall, they did something that demonstrated class in the truest sense of the word.
Nebraska’s head football coach and athletic director gathered up about 250 former players attending a pre-Spring Game banquet in the Hawks indoor practice facility and led them and their special guests to the formal unveiling of the Lettermen’s Wall – a 90-foot-long brick billboard that helps escort the Huskers on the first leg of their famed Tunnel Walk underneath the North Stadium.
The big news wasn’t the 250 former players, and it wasn’t Pelini and Osborne with a giant ribbon and an oversized pair of scissors in their hands. The big news wasn’t even seeing the names of 2,013 former varsity lettermen engraved into some 3,200 bricks weighing nearly 6,000 pounds.
No, the big news and the classy thing about this event were the special guests – 52 current lettermen whose names will be on that historic wall when they exhaust their eligibility and graduate. The current lettermen, including the seniors ready to leave the program, mingled among the former lettermen, and the welcome mat never looked so good or meant so much. Spring Game weekend was an ideal time to connect players from the past with the players of the present and the players of the future.
Being a varsity football letterman is a high honor at Nebraska, and everyone agreed it was nice to watch an important club tighten its ranks, thanks, in large part, to Mitch Krenk and Doak Ostergard. Krenk, the former fifth-team, walk-on tight end who got a Super Bowl ring for the Chicago Bears, is president of the N-Club. Ostergard, Nebraska’s former head trainer and now the athletic department’s director of outreach programs, worked with Krenk to organize the Spring Game weekend festivities.
EVEN COACH OSBORNE SHOWS SOME EMOTION
While viewing the Lettermen’s Wall with the large contingent of players, the usually stoic Osborne admitted he was affected by the moment. The sweeping display of tradition brought more than one tear. Some players wiped their eyes and sniffed out loud within seconds of seeing the wall for the first time. Some had to pause and collect their thoughts. Words could not express emotions, so few were said.
The tiles on the massive wall, donated and engraved by Endicott Clay in Fairbury, Neb., and designed by NU athletic facilities project coordinator Maggi Thorne, are almost guaranteed conversation starters.
Hundreds of lettermen who didn’t make the formal unveiling of the wall on Friday night made sure they saw Nebraska’s newest salute to tradition on game day. Let the record show that three former players – running backs Tim Wurth and Damon Benning and current Chicago Bears’ safety Mike Brown – more than matched the emotion of their ex-head coach and current athletic director when they took their first look at the wall during the Spring Game.
"This is what Nebraska football history is all about. This wall just screams tradition," said Wurth, a three-time letterman (1977-79) who choked up twice during an interview while reading the names of former lettermen he played with.
"The first thing you notice is the anticipation of blank bricks on down the line, and you think of all the history in this program," Wurth said. "The bricks with names on it are the past and the ones that don’t have names yet are the future."
And yes, there is a direct link between the two – a link that will be nurtured and constantly reinforced through Pelini and Osborne.
"I know one thing. Every player whose name is on that wall right now, at least in the last 50 years, knows what makes Nebraska one of the most traditional football programs," Wurth said. "It’s every player knowing, deep down inside, that you have to earn your way on to that wall, and when you do, you pass what you learned on to the next class. Nebraska always has been about the rite of passage, and I don’t know what says that better than this incredible wall they decided to put up."
Benning, the MVP of Nebraska’s 1996 Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech, walked off the sidelines and quickly approached the Lettermen’s Wall that every player sees every time he takes the field for practice or game day. As he approached the wall, he stopped in his tracks and took a sweeping snapshot in his head, then moved closer, stopping when he got to the 1996 set of bricks. He stared at them for about 15 seconds, looked away for a couple of seconds, took in a deep breath and then moved even closer.
"Michael Booker," he said, smiling at the memory of the California native who starred on two Nebraska national championship teams and started at cornerback in the Super Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons. Benning still remembers when Booker told everyone how much more he enjoyed playing college football than he did playing five seasons in the NFL.
"Jamel Williams," Benning announced with another big smile. Another two-time national champion and former safety for the Washington Redskins, Williams was elsewhere in the stadium with his wife, Sarah, a former Nebraska softball player, and their two children.
AT NEBRASKA THERE IS NO SEPARATION
Benning, senior director for the Open Door Mission in Omaha, says there’s a story for every brick on the wall. "People talk about building a foundation and how this wall symbolizes what we all did together, and it’s true," he said. "We built this program piece by piece and brick by brick. At Nebraska, it doesn’t matter who you are; it’s what you gave up to keep this incredible tradition going.
"Every name on every brick is the same size," Benning said. "That’s good because at Nebraska, there is no separation. There is no in-state player, no out-of-state player, no walk-on player and no scholarship player. We were all equals when we got here, and we all came here for the same reason – to contribute to something much bigger than all of us. At Nebraska, all lettermen are the same. We’re hundreds of guys who paid the price to be part of one of the greatest traditions in all of college football. And the greatest honor any of us ever achieved was being able to say: ‘I played for Nebraska!’"
Mike Brown played for Nebraska, too, lettering four years – ’96-’99. He was the nation’s top-rated defensive back in high school at Scottsdale, Ariz., before becoming a Husker and earning All-America honors. He took his aggressiveness, emotion and leadership, on and off the field, from Nebraska to the starting safety job for the Chicago Bears. At the Spring Game, Brown approached the wall with a certain reverence. Fame and fortune have blessed him, but his football heart and soul are still inside Memorial Stadium, and now his name is engraved into that second brick marked 1999.
"Nebraska has always been a program built on tradition," Brown said. "Being here today with all these other players gives you a fresh feeling. I don’t want to knock anybody, but somehow our tradition was starting to wilt away. It meant the world to me when Coach Osborne decided to come back. I’m telling you the truth. Every player I’ve ever known was ecstatic. I was ecstatic . . . out of my mind, really. I couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely, totally, 100 percent shocked. Everyone knew almost instantly that things would change for the better."
Within days, the Nebraska All-America pictures were hung on the wall outside the locker room, and Brown couldn’t have been happier – not because his picture was one of them, but because "those pictures helped me understand our commitment and our tradition when I first got here as a freshman," he said. "I knew the minute I first walked inside the locker room that I was being asked to follow in that tradition and keep it going, not try to create a new tradition.
"No one really knows why that tradition was starting to wilt away day-by-day," Brown said. "But now we can look forward to a new era, a new beginning. I’m confident we will be a championship program again because I can already tell that everything that happens on the field will be earned on the field. It will be earned just like it’s always been earned around here – in winter conditioning, spring ball and summer workouts. Whoever prepares the best and plays the best will be on the field this fall."
Wurth, the Omaha World-Herald’s State High School Athlete of the Year in 1976, remembers finishing his first season on the freshman team and then getting called up to varsity. "I opened my locker, and, all of a sudden, I was No. 20. For the next two weeks, I was (Oklahoma Heisman Trophy running back) Billy Sims, not Tim Wurth."
It was his big chance to earn the respect he so desperately wanted. Before he ever put that jersey on, Wurth decided "I was going to give 110 percent of myself to this opportunity just to protect myself," he said. "That first day, and the whole first week, I busted my butt. I can’t tell you how many times the defensive guys pushed my head into the ground. But I kept getting back up and giving it everything I had in me. That first week, the defense kept telling me: ‘Hey, Rook. Slow down, man . . . slow down.’" But I didn’t. I just kept going harder." By the end of the second week, those same Blackshirts were patting Wurth on the back and saying, "Good job, man. You gave us a really good picture out there. Keep up the good work."
TRADITION MEANS PASSING THE TORCH . . . EVERY YEAR
That’s when Tim Wurth, high school superstar, knew what tradition was all about. "The Blackshirts passed the responsibility on to me, and I earned my way onto the field," he said. "Once I got there, I wasn’t ever going to let up, and then someday it would be my turn to pass our tradition on to somebody else. That’s the way Nebraska coaches and players have always done it. Somehow, that got lost over these last few years. There’s been a void. The chain of earning what you get wasn’t there anymore. The coaches in here now understand our history and our tradition, and you can really tell how much they embrace it. They want to pass it on."
Wurth and former teammates Krenk and Tony Felici welcomed Osborne back to football practice last fall in his second day as athletic director. "We all looked at him and all saw the same thing," Wurth recalled. "He had a glow about him, and we all saw it. He was where he was supposed to be. I had helped him in Omaha on his political campaign for governor and was so disappointed when he wasn’t elected. I couldn’t help myself when I saw that certain glow and how revitalized and rejuvenated he looked. I said ‘Coach, you were not meant to be governor. You were meant to be here, helping the program you built.’"
Osborne’s return was an instant unifier. "Every single player – to a T – would do anything to help this program in any way," Wurth said. "But the credit goes to the Athletic Department. Under Coach Osborne’s leadership, they’ve gone the longest yard. They’ve opened up their arms and welcomed all of the former players back."
At the Spring Game, as he surveyed a sold-out crowd of 81,000, Wurth said: "This is absolutely unbelievable. This could only happen in Nebraska. I’ve gotten e-mails from people all across the country. They can’t believe we’d sell out a spring game. I told them it’s the tradition at Nebraska coming back up to support all the athletes. Whether they’re walk-ons or scholarship athletes, it doesn’t matter. The expectations when I played were the same as they were for Johnny Rodgers and his era. You came in and played on the freshman team, redshirted as a sophomore and then started your playing career as a redshirt sophomore. That’s when most people earned their wings."
Earning your wings is part of the rite of passage. The other two senior lettermen names on the brick with Wurth are Tom Vering and Kerry Weinmaster. "They worked hard and played with passion," Wurth said as he surveyed the wall.
He pointed out that Jeff Bloom and Tim Hager (who started at quarterback) were both walk-ons. "John Havekost was from Columbus, and I.M. Hipp is probably the most famous walk-on of all-time here," Wurth said. "There’s Oudious Lee. And Dan Pensick. Paul Potadle stayed here for five years and finally lettered because he earned it. Kelly Saalfeld was a great walk-on, a great center, a great guy . . . an Academic All-American. He still officiates the Big 12 Conference and works Nebraska practices. Dan Steiner is another walk-on. What kind of tradition would we have without walk-ons?"
Wurth remembers starting his freshman season as a fourth-string I-back. Guy Ingles pulled him aside one day and told him some walk-ons had been promised an equal chance at evaluations, and they were going to get that chance. To Wurth, that meant only one thing – the competition was on.
"I knew when I was recruited that I would have to work hard for everything I got and nothing would be handed to me," he said. "From the first day I was a Husker, whatever I had to do to play, I did. That’s the way it is at Nebraska, and that’s the work ethic that has to be woven back into this program. Those are the types of recruits we need to go after – the ones who are competitive and want to earn their way instead of having something handed to them."
Wurth, now 50, is a commercial real estate developer in Omaha. Three of his kids have graduated from college, and the fourth will graduate from college this summer. He can’t believe how fast the years go by.
Taking one last look at the wall, he chokes up a bit. "All my kids are raised," he said. "They’ve all worked hard. Now I can get back involved in this program, and it’ll be fun. Look at all these guys who came back. Most of them are like me – blue-collar guys who earned their way onto that Lettermen’s Wall. When you see the blue-collar guys, that’s when you know everybody is welcome. We’re always going to have the superstars like Broderick Thomas and Tommie Frazier (standing right in front of him). But in Coach Osborne’s eyes, we’re all equals and all in this together. That’s why Nebraska’s tradition is so much different than just about anyone else’s. It’s all about the people and the relationships. The winning always took care of itself."
Respond to Randy
"Great article on the Letterman's Wall. Great to hear all of the support coming back to the program and the team member's (current and former) standing united to correct the ship. Keep up the good work." - Ryan Senkbile
"What an awesome tribute to the past and the future." - Joyce Kautz
"You made it easy for everyone to understand why all Nebraskans have such pride in their football team. It's the players' character, what they bring to the program, pride in where they're at, what they're doing, knowing what it meams to an entire state. All that starts at the top. The character has to start there." Lonnie Irvine, Cheyenne Wyo.
"Thanks for writing about the letterman's wall. It meant a lot to this career second stringer. I can't wait to see it upon my return." - Brad Johnson
"I'm a Nebraska native (born in Scottsbluff, grew up in Lexington, college in Kearney, worked in Omaha) now living in Houston, Texas. A large part of a Nebraskan's identity, and I'll always consider myself a Nebraskan, comes from our pride in our football program. It does my heart good to see and hear about all these wonderful changes that Dr. Osborne and Coach Pelini are instituting and bringing back to this wonderful program." Scott Sands
"What a fantastic piece on the new letterman's wall. It is so great to hear stories about former letterman and how much the Nebraska tradition and friendships meant to them. Understanding that feelings that have returned to the Husker football program makes everyone feel confident that it is only a matter of time until the Huskers return to greatness." - Mike Mahoney, Olathe, Kan.
"Anyone who is a Husker fan should really get excited about what is happening not only with the football program at the present time but the entire atheltic department. I think this article really makes the point that tradition is a very important thing at Nebraska. I voted on the T-shirt design and there was no question the tradition shirt was the hands-down choice. I look forward to the coming football season now that tradition has made a comeback in a big way." - Jeff Kelley
"What a wonderful article about "The Wall." I started listening to Lyell Bremser on KFAB doing Nebraska football, during Bob Devaney's first season in Lincoln. I was 7 at the time growing up in Omaha. Five years ago, my wife, daughter and I moved to Maine. It is amazing what a wonderful "binder" Nebraska athletics is to the people of Nebraska as well as the rest of us who have moved away. Within 15 minutes of Tom Osborne's hiring as athletic director, I received emails or calls from 5 people. What a wonderful pipeline." - Gary Loft
"How can any Nebraska fan not get emotional about your Letterman's Wall piece. I can remember virtually every player mentioned in the article, and puff my chest out with pride that I am a Husker, and devoted fan of my team. An awesome tribute to an awesome tradition. It makes this class of 1973 graduate proud of his University." - Doug Jansing, Wichita Falls, Texas